7 Characteristics of light pollution

The excessive and inappropriate emission of artificial light is known as light pollution. This type of pollution that produces excess artificial light is obscuring the brightness of the stars, negatively affecting the environment, human health and astronomical observation.

In this article, we will explore more about what light pollution is, its causes, consequences and how to avoid it, in search of recovering the magic of a starry sky and protect our night environment and our health.

What light pollution and examples are

Light pollution is understood as the excess artificial light, i.e. generated by humans, which is unwantedly emitted into the atmosphere, causing an important part of light radiation to escape vertically and illuminate the night sky. It can be produced by an inefficient use of the different artificial light sources, excessive or unnecessary lighting or poor planning and management of light sources.

Examples of light pollution include:

  • Gluthing of urban origin: consists of the light pollution caused by the use of lights too bright or poorly directed, producing the characteristic glow of light pollution in the night sky, commonly known as the light pollution fungi. It is typical of large cities, although small towns or populations also frequently generate this type of light pollution.
  • Excessive lighting: Regardless of where it occurs, excessive lighting is a good example of light pollution. It usually occurs in residential areas, although it may also be present in industrial or commercial areas, associated with advertising posters and bright signs.
  • Illumination inappropriate in natural spaces: by using artificial light spotlights to illuminate natural parks, beaches and other types of natural spaces.

But there are also examples of good management of light pollution, such as the island of La Palma, in the archipelago of the Canary Islands. On this island there are a series of regulations aimed at guaranteeing the right of its citizens to a night sky, among which the Law of Heaven stands out.

As a result, a set of measures is being implemented for the good management and control of light pollution. Some of these are:

  • Use of orange or yellowish lighting: the blue or white light is more energetic than orange or yellow, so you can also travel a longer distance before extinction. Therefore, the use of lighting is promoted (yellow or orange) throughout the island and white lights are avoided, making it difficult to escape residual light into the atmosphere.
  • Good directionality of outdoor light sources: in La Palma, all public lanterns and private light spots must be expressly directed towards the ground, not being able to overcome a certain angle from it to avoid direct lighting of the sky.
  • Unnecessary from midnight all signs and decorative posters are turned off, thus avoiding the use of unnecessary lighting.

These measures have led La Palma to be recognized as a bulwark against light pollution, becoming a world-class landmark and hosting a large number of astronomical observatories on the island that carry out leading scientific studies with state-of-the-art equipment.

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Characteristics of light pollution

Light pollution refers to the excessive or misdirected artificial light that negatively affects the natural environment and human health. Here are some key characteristics of light pollution:

  1. Glare: Light pollution produces excessive brightness and glare, making it difficult to see stars, celestial objects, and the natural night sky. Glare can cause discomfort and reduce visibility for drivers, pedestrians, and wildlife.
  2. Skyglow: Skyglow is the brightening of the night sky caused by the scattering and reflection of artificial light. It creates a hazy glow over urban and suburban areas, obscuring the view of stars and other astronomical phenomena. Skyglow can impact astronomical research and interfere with the natural biological rhythms of nocturnal animals.
  3. Light Trespass: Light trespass occurs when artificial light spills over into areas where it is not intended or needed, such as neighboring properties, nature reserves, or protected habitats. This can disrupt the natural behavior and habitats of nocturnal animals, disturb human sleep patterns, and affect the overall aesthetics of the environment.
  4. Energy Waste: Light pollution results in energy waste by illuminating areas unnecessarily or inefficiently. This includes poorly designed or misdirected outdoor lighting, which can contribute to excessive energy consumption and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
  5. Health Effects: Exposure to artificial light at night can disrupt the natural circadian rhythm, leading to sleep disturbances, hormonal imbalances, and various health issues. The disruption of the sleep-wake cycle can affect human productivity, cognitive function, and overall well-being.
  6. Ecological Impact: Light pollution can have detrimental effects on ecosystems and wildlife. It can disrupt animal behavior, migration patterns, reproductive cycles, and feeding habits. For example, sea turtles may become disoriented by artificial lights and nest in inappropriate areas, leading to reduced survival rates for hatchlings.
  7. Economic Impact: Light pollution has economic consequences, including increased energy costs for lighting and the need for more extensive lighting infrastructure. Additionally, it can impact tourism in areas where the natural night sky is a significant attraction, such as dark sky parks or astronomy observatories.

In summary, light pollution is characterized by glare, skyglow, light trespass, energy waste, negative health effects, ecological impact, and economic consequences. It affects the natural environment, disrupts wildlife behavior, and has implications for human health and well-being. Efforts to reduce light pollution include using shielded and energy-efficient lighting, implementing lighting regulations, and raising awareness about the importance of preserving dark skies.

Causes of light pollution

  • Inadequate urban lighting: poorly designed or over-dominated public lighting is one of the main causes of light pollution. The installation of inefficient, poorly directed luminaires with unnecessary light intensity can cause light to disperse in unwanted directions, such as the night sky.
  • Excessive use of artificial light: unnecessary or excessive use of artificial light in buildings, streets, stadiums, squares and other public spaces contributes to light pollution. Poorly regulated lighting, which remains on all night or when it is not necessary, generates unnecessary waste of energy and light emissions.
  • Advertising and bright signs: signs and advertising signs that use bright and flashy lights can be a significant source of light pollution, especially if not properly regulated. The lack of restrictions on the intensity and direction of the light emitted can contribute to the dispersion of light in the environment.
  • Uncontrolled residential lighting: inappropriate lighting in homes and gardens also contributes to light pollution. The use of poorly oriented exterior lights, excessively bright safety lights or unfettered decorative lights can generate unwanted light dispersion.
  • Obsolete lighting systems: the use of outdated and inefficient lighting systems contributes to light pollution. High-intensity discharge lamps, such as high-pressure sodium lamps or metal halicers, can emit light in unwanted directions and generate excessive light dispersion.
  • Light pollution in rural areas: Although light pollution is more common in urban areas, it can also affect rural areas. Outdoor farm lights, poorly directed public lighting and other inappropriate uses of artificial lighting can affect nightlife and natural ecosystems.
  • Lack of regulations and awareness: the lack of adequate regulations and the lack of awareness about the negative impacts of light pollution also contribute to its spread. The absence of policies and guidelines for the responsible use of artificial lighting allows for uncontrolled growth in light pollution.

Consequences of light pollution

  • Impact on the environment: light pollution alters the natural cycles and biological rhythms of organisms. Artificial light at night can interfere with animal behavior patterns, including migration, food, reproduction and rest. This can affect ecosystems and biodiversity, unbalanced interactions between species.
  • Impact on human health: Overexposing artificial light at night can have negative effects on human health. Bright light during the night suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, which can lead to sleep disorders, such as insomnia. Light pollution has also been associated with health problems, such as stress, fatigue, depression and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Difficulty for astronomical observation: light pollution makes it difficult to observe the night sky and reduces the visibility of stars, planets and other celestial bodies. The bright artificial lights make the background of the sky light up, reducing the contrast and clarity of astronomical images. This negatively affects both professional astronomers and amateurs, limiting access to study and appreciation of the universe.
  • Energy waste: Light pollution implies unnecessary energy consumption. Lights on throughout the night, inefficient lighting and excessive use of artificial light contribute to the waste of energy resources and increase greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change and environmental degradation.
  • Loss of natural beauty from the night sky: light pollution hides the natural beauty of the night sky and affects the cultural and emotional connection that many people have historically had with the stars and the sight of the starry sky. The loss of night darkness affects aesthetic quality and reduces the visual experience of the night.

How to avoid light pollution

  • Light pollution map: on an individual level, if we want to find skies with little light pollution to enjoy the starry sky, we can turn to the light pollution maps, which show the intensity of this in each region using a color scale depending on how intense artificial lighting is at night. Most of them follow the Bortle scale, which goes from black to areas with an excellent sky (propriese only of open sea and away from the coasts) to the white for the areas of large urban centres. Intermediate levels contemplate green for good skies and orange and red for low quality skies.
  • Ascent to high peaks: with the aim of moving away from the great sources of light pollution it is common to ascend to high peaks, where a good part of the lighting of cities and towns does not arrive with all its intensity.
  • Efficient use efficient lighting systems and LED lighting technologies that minimize light waste and maximize the direction and focus of the light.
  • Proper lighting: design lighting systems that fit the specific needs of each area and minimize the emission of light outside the places where it is needed, in addition to choosing a hot light temperature.
  • Hours and regulations: Establish adequate hours for outdoor lighting, turning off unnecessary lights during hours of less activity. It is also important to implement regulations and policies that promote the responsible use of lighting, limiting the intensity of light, orientation and ignition times.

Now that you know better what light pollution is, its causes, consequences and how to avoid it, here you can read about What the positive and negative environmental impact is.

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